Yukon / Gold-digger

Yukon is an unusual point-trick game, which appears in several English-language card game books. The earliest that I know of being Vernon Quinn's "50 Card Games for Children" (1933), which asserts that it was based on an old German game and was popular during the American Gold Rush. It is played with 5-card hands, players drawing a replacement card from the stock after each trick. The jacks, known as Yukons, are the most valuable cards and function as trumps, the spade jack being highest and the others equal. Rules of Yukon can be found on this archive copy of Howard Fosdick's web page.

Gold-digger is a similar game found in several Scandinavian books. It is known as Guldgrävare in Swedish, Guldgraverne in Danish and Gullgravere in Norwegian. There are several differences from Yukon:

  1. The card values are: spade jack 15, other jacks 11, kings 3, queens 2, tens 10, aces 5. As in Yukon, the numeral cards 2-9 have no value, so there are 129 points in the pack in total.
  2. Below the Gold-digger (jack), the cards of each suit rank K-Q-10-9-..., the ace being the lowest card of each suit.
  3. The game can be played as a single deal,or as a series of deals with a target of 250 points to win the game, or sometimes 500 in the four-player partnership game. The final hand is played out and the player or team with most points wins.
  4. In the event of a tie for most points, either in a single deal game or after the final hand of a series, the player or team who took the ace of spades in the last hand wins.

It is rare to find card players who know these games, and it seems that most of those who do know them have learned them from books. However, David Parlett tells me that card game author Andrew Pennycook learned Yukon from his father, who spent his working life in Canada and picked it up there, possibly as early as 1910. It would be interesting to know whether it is still played in Canada, or if there are any other surviving groups of players that have a continuous tradition of play (having learned from their families or other players rather than by reading about the game somewhere).

There is one uncertainty in the rules of both the North American / English and Scandinavian versions. Are you allowed to play the Yukon of the suit that was led if you have other cards of that suit in your hand? Most of the books say something like "you must follow suit, and if unable to do so you must play a Yukon", which suggests that the answer is yes. They also explicitly say that when a Yukon is led, you must play a card of that suit, and if you don't have any you must play a Yukon. However Quinn, who gives by far the fullest description, writes as follows: "The cards rank in their usual order - A-K-Q, etc. - except the four Jacks, which are the highest of all, their suits being disregarded unless one of them is led. ... If the heartA is led, the clubJ will win it - or the heartJ or diamondJ or spadeJ; but a Yukon is played only when its owner cannot follow suit."

The implication is that when a heart is led you cannot play the heartJ if you have other hearts (the suit of the Yukon being ignored since no Yukon was led), and that if you have no other hearts you can play any Yukon, not necessarily the heart Jack. One correspondent confirms this interpretation but adds a further rule, not found in any of the books, that it is illegal to lead a Yukon to a trick. It is unclear in this case what happens if the rare situation is reached near the end of the play where the player on lead has nothing except Yukons. Presumably that player is then permitted to lead a Yukon, having no alternative, and the other players follow the book rule that they must play a card of the nominal suit of the Yukon if possible, and if holding no cards of that suit they must play a Yukon.

It would be good to have further confirmation of these rules, and there are two possibilities: (a) to find an independent and more thorough written description of the game, ideally earlier than 1933 so that we can be confident that it does not simply represent an author's attempt to make sense of the ambiguous descriptions that we have, or (b) to find a group of good players who know the game well and ask what they do. It may be of course that there was or is more than one variation of the rules in use.